Successful Supervisor Part 5 – Testing Limits

December 18, 2016

It seems so simple that there is a set number of rules for workers to follow, and they should always follow them. As any supervisor will tell you, getting people to follow the rules is a major part of the job that is both tedious and thankless.

In this article, we dig into the phenomenon of rules: how people test them and how they react to various approaches to enforce the rules. I will suggest some best practices that allow the supervisor to thread the needle of this immense challenge and will discuss some things that should be avoided.

Regardless of how the supervisor was appointed, there is one thing for sure: people are going to test the limits to find out how she reacts in different situations. Now comes the part where most supervisors can struggle for years.

The desire is to have a pleasant work environment where the tasks get done by cheerful people who follow all the rules. In other words, the supervisor would like to be popular, but being a popular leader is a tricky business. As Colin Powell once said, “Sometimes being a leader means pissing people off.”

Constant conundrum

In most organizations, part of the performance and salary system for supervisors includes an evaluation by the people who are being supervised. The new supervisor knows that if she takes a hard line on all the rules, people are going to rate her poorly, and that could easily have an impact on her pay.

She tries to accommodate people as much as possible and does not “put the hammer down” if people take a few extra minutes for breaks. Note: I will use the length of breaks as an example here. The same testing will go on wherever there is a behavioral rule, like attendance, work hours, housekeeping, or other standard measures.

Once people see the supervisor is trying to accommodate the workers, they will up the ante to push the limits. Five extra minutes for a break will stretch to 15 minutes extra or even more. Without some check, the abuse will continue to become more extreme.

Eventually productivity takes such a hit that the supervisor has to clamp down. This is where most inexperienced supervisors make a fundamental mistake. They issue a note via e-mail or text reminding people that the standard break duration is 15 minutes (or whatever the rule is for that unit). Now she will be faced with what I call “The Bugle Effect.”

The Bugle Effect

When I was a young engineer, I worked in a bullpen area with few partitions. The group was rather lax about quitting time, because people wanted to avoid the rush hour traffic. The published quitting time was 4:40 PM, but if you actually left at that time it would take you an extra 30 minutes to get home. Discipline had been lost over the years, and most people checked out around 4 PM. The supervisor finally had enough and wrote a letter reminding people that the quitting time of 4:40 PM needed to be honored.

One of the technicians in the area made a “bugle” out of some copper tubing, a pneumatic fitting, and a large tin funnel. Every day all the technical staff would be at their desks working away until the clock reached 4:40, then the technician would pull out the bugle and blow it, and everybody would clamor to be the first one on the elevator.

In essence, the population was mocking the supervisor for trying to hold the line on quitting time. They thought she was being petty, and so they developed bad attitudes about the hours of work. Her method of trying to enforce the rules had backfired.

Some possible solutions

I offer a few solutions below, but it is important to judge the group’s personality and operating norms before applying any specific method. I learned that lesson the hard way when I was a new supervisor. I called a special meeting and marched the entire group into a conference room to go over my expectations.

The body language of the participants was terrible, and I lost a lot of ground that day. Think through the possible options and select one that is right for your situation.

An overarching consideration is to avoid being manipulative with people. Rather, seek to influence behavior with the truth served up in ways they can appreciate and always treat them as adults. Work to establish a sense of rightness and fairness that is built on the culture of trust developed within the group.

The symptom of pushing limits is rooted in motivation. I cover the topic of motivation in a later article, but for this article, I will suggest that a best practice is to investigate the alignment and culture within the team. Asking questions rather than making statements is an effective approach.

1. Here are some questions worth exploring with the group:

a) To what extent do all people on the team recognize their contribution to the total effort?
b) How do people feel about the culture and trust level within the team?
c) What are some things the team can do to be more cohesive and more effective?
d) How strongly do people realize that without some controls, we cannot accomplish our tasks well and be fair to everyone?
e) How well do people in this operation understand the rules?
f) Is it in the best interest of the entire group to follow the rules, except in situations of a rare personal emergency?
g) How much better off would we be if we were not trying to figure out who are the worst abusers of the rules?
h) What are some of the advantages of having discipline within our unit?
i) To what extent do people feel reinforced or punished when they bring up things they do not agree with?
j) If we truly respect each other, how can we all abide by the rules without relying on some kind of policeman to enforce them?

2. Another approach would be to put the onus on group norms of behavior to achieve better control.

The central theme is that, as adults, the group owns the process and has the ability to choose the best route to maintain order. The supervisor might lead a discussion as follows:

a) Mention at a staff meeting that she has observed that not everyone is following the stated rules for leaving time.
b) Discuss the reason for having a standard leaving time in the first place. Get the individuals involved in the discussion if possible. How would they like to control the situation?
c) Ask if it is appropriate to have a team behavior that our intention is to follow the published rules unless there is an unusual situation or emergency.
d) If the rule appears to be unfair or arbitrary, she might ask for creative suggestions for how to accomplish the required hours on the job in a different way, such as some form of flex time where people are allowed to leave a bit early provided they started early or took a shortened lunch break.
e) Ask the group whether they understand the need to be more rigorous at following the rules because they are there for a reason (here the trick is to ask the group a question rather than make a demand.)

3. A third approach is for the supervisor to seek out an informal leader of the team and ask that person to help her out with the others.

She might suggest that if the informal leader acts closer to the expected behavior the others may eventually follow. I will discuss the informal leader and several other types of individuals and give some suggestions in a future article.

These approaches might not work in all cases; it depends on the maturity of the group and the individuals in it. The supervisor has to sometimes try different approaches to keep a reasonable discipline.

The magic here is to refrain from continually hounding people and insisting on compliance. When a supervisor demands compliance, it usually results in some form of “The Bugle Effect.” By exploring the out-of-control situation openly and asking questions, the supervisor can regain control while simultaneously gaining more respect with the group members.

Now, the supervisor can suggest that it is the group’s responsibility to reinforce their own behavior and recognize there may be certain circumstances where a person might have to leave early for personal reasons, but most people will stay until at least quitting time because they understand the logic. Most likely you will see several people working well past quitting time, because they are aware the boss notices these things.

An approach that will likely backfire

Some supervisors try to offer an incentive or reward for following the rules. The supervisor might say, “If the group takes breaks according to the standard all week, we can have a pizza party on Friday.” This usually backfires because the rules are in place and are expected to be followed.

A special reward of any kind for compliance may modify behavior for a while but will hurt morale in the end and will definitely lead to loss of cooperation.

You do not reward a driver for stopping at a stop sign. It is expected behavior.

The attitude of the supervisor should be firm but reasonable. The idea is to gain and maintain trust and respect rather than try to trick or force people into compliance. The best approach is to be strong and unbending on matters of principle but approachable and flexible when dealing with individual situations.

It is important to realize that different people react differently to discipline, and you must flex your style appropriately to be most effective. One precaution on flexing is that the standards of deportment must be the same for everyone.

If you let one individual get away with more lax rules because he is a bully or one of your favorite people, then you are in for trouble all along the line. Flex on style and approach to people but remain firm on the standards that apply in the area out of a sense of fairness.

Treating first line employees like adults and being sensitive to their needs is usually superior to the militant approach of barking out orders then trying to enforce them every day.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Firm but Fair Leadership

April 16, 2016

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. These are not good for diagnosing problems or specifying corrective action, but they can tell you where you stand quickly. Here is one of my favorite ways to measure a leader’s skills.

Firm but Fair

Great leaders know how to navigate the minefield of being compassionate but have a sense of discipline within the organization. It really is a delicate balance. You need to make accommodations in some circumstances and draw a firm line in others.

We have all seen leaders who are too eager to please. They bend over backwards to be accommodating to the needs of people in the organization. Their objective is to ensure everyone is “happy” almost all the time.

In return, people take advantage of the leader and make more requests for special consideration. Also, since people can observe the concessions made by the leader with other people, a sense of equity demands that when a similar situation comes up the same concession is extended to others.

Before long, the leader has lost all sense of control. In a desperate attempt to regain order, the leader tries to draw lines in the sand. This is annoying to people who have become accustom to a more lax interpretation of the rules. So, being too accommodating is dangerous. When you try to hold the line later, people tend to resent it.

On the flip side, going too much “by the book” gains one a reputation for being a hard ass. That reputation limits the amount of discretionary effort people are willing to expend. If a leader shows no compassion for the typical tight spots people find themselves in, he becomes an ogre that demands respect through command and control. Scrooge, before his transformation, was a good example of this kind of leader.

Neither of these extremes is desirable. The “sweet spot” is to have a reputation for being firm with application of the rules, but compassionate as well and willing to be flexible in extreme cases. Also, be cognizant of the need for fairness. This implies putting a damper on the issue of playing favorites. I have written elsewhere on the issue of favorites.

Briefly, we need to recognize that we cannot avoid having favorites within any population. We are human beings. What the great leader does is show in many ways that, even though there are favorites, he does not “play favorites.” To avoid this, the leader tries to treat each person as a favorite and operates outside his comfort zone for some small percentage of the time.

In their excellent book, Triple Crown Leadership, Bob and Gregg Vanourek use the analogy of “steel and velvet.” They point out that the best leaders flex between being firm like steel and showing care, like velvet. Their thesis is that being velvet all the time leads to weak leadership, but being steel all the time leads to disgruntled workers who comply but are not engaged in the work.

One obvious thing that some leaders miss is that being firm implies having standards. Neither of the extremes in this dimension is advisable. On the one hand, you can have a burdensome employee manual with thousands of rules that people find hard to remember. If you find yourself “hiding behind” the employee manual when making decisions on personal requests, you may be in danger of over doing the bureaucratic mumbo jumbo.

On the other extreme is the office where there are no formal rules, and “we just try to always do what is right.” That condition is a slippery slope, because without some form of standards people don’t know what to expect. They push the limits until things get way out of control.

The optimum position is to have a crisp and concise set of expectations, and everyone should know they are enforced. People should also be aware that there are emergency situations where a rule can be waived, but those situations are rare. Knowing when to grant an exception is what puts the art in leadership. In general it is best to lean toward the formal side but be willing to flex when required.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.


Seven Traits of Super Teams

March 31, 2013

Green Arrow Breaks Through Maze WallsIf you have ever been on a SuperTeam, you know how it felt. The group accomplished seemingly impossible goals like clockwork. The group stayed pretty much on track, and when it got off the beam, it self-corrected. People on the team shared real interpersonal affection, and the group had a lot of fun. Imagine a world where most teams functioned that way: how refreshing. What would it take to make this dream a reality?

I have been serving on and advising teams for over four decades, and I have come to the conclusion that there are seven traits that enable this kind of environment. If you are on a team that has an abundance of the following seven characteristics, I guarantee it is one of those super groups that is so rare these days.

1. Good leadership

The person in the leadership role must be an excellent leader. Reason: nothing can ruin the ability of a team to rise to greatness more quickly than a leader who cannot maintain the right kind of environment and lead by example. The leadership role can be distributed to more than one member, but there is always one person in charge at any moment, and that person needs to have excellent leadership instincts. Perfection is not required, but a values-based approach to the concept of servant leadership is fundamental, and must be there.

2. A common goal

If all members of the team are aligned behind a common goal, that forms a foundation for great teamwork. To have goal alignment, the team needs to embrace the goal or vision emotionally, not just understand it. Leaders need to foster a sense of ownership of the goal in each team member, and each person must understand his or her contribution to the goal. This alignment is accomplished best by involving all team members in establishing the goal in the first place. With universal ownership of a worthy goal, the team is off to a great start; without it the team could not function.

3. Trust and respect

Without the elements of trust and respect, team members will eventually undercut each other and cause discontent. Excellent leaders know that trust begins with them and their behaviors. It is not likely you will find a trusting team if the leader does not know how to foster trust and practice trust building behaviors daily. I believe the most important skill in building trust is to create a safe environment, where team members can voice any concerns and know they will be rewarded rather than punished. Fear is the enemy of trust and will easily destroy it. To drive out fear, leaders need to make people feel good when they voice a concern. I call it “reinforcing candor,” which is an essential ingredient in good team communication.

4. Good communication

Team members must be able to express themselves freely without fear and have the skills to listen to each other without being judgmental. Great communication skills do not come naturally, and they are not taught very well in schools. Smart leaders recognize any gaps in communication skills and provide immediate training to enable seamless and easy flow of information. Team members need to dig, not just for understanding, but for intent. The most important communication skills are listening, body language, and Emotional Intelligence. How many of us had courses in these critical skills in school? When these skills are not present, the blockages produced will hobble any efforts toward a cohesive group. Smart leaders invest in training of excellent communication skills for all team members.

5. Encouragement and reinforcement

Team members need to feel that someone truly has their back. They need to know someone really cares and will go the extra mile to ensure all members are doing their best. Reinforcement for good work must be sincere and immediate. The best reinforcement on a team is from one member to another and in a loving, spontaneous way. Good reinforcement does not need to be financial. Many times the most effective reinforcement is just a sincere thank you from another team member.

6. Discipline

Discipline should not be confused with punishment. What team members need is an understanding of the rules of engagement and a sense of resolve for upholding their end of the bargain. The most frequent source of team stress is a feeling that one or more members of the team are not pulling their weight. I believe more than 50% of all team problems are caused by this one aspect alone. Teams quickly become fractionated when there is social loafing going on among some members. The best way to avoid this is to have a team charter with expected behaviors spelled out in advance and a specific agreed-upon consequence for any member who does not pull his or her share of the load. If all members agree that a slacker will be expected to “wash the dishes for a week,” then a potential slacker is not likely to goof off. If he or she does, then the penalty has already been agreed on, so a fair application is not subject to argument. My observation is that having a solid team charter with visible consequences for social loafing is the most significant ingredient that will prevent team discord.

7. Balanced Accountability

Holding people accountable is usually a negative expression. Someone is not measuring up in some way, and is forced by others to face the fact and make corrections. I advocate a more holistic or balanced approach to accountability where the good things are reinforced in addition to some coaching on things that need to be corrected.

Great teams have a deep sense of accountability, because they have a high level of commitment to each other and the goals. Since most of the team members are making positive contributions daily, they are responsible to the team for their efforts and performance in positive ways most of the time. Acknowledging accountability for positive acts is also called “reinforcement.” If an individual does come up short on occasion, he or she receives some shaping that can be anything from some gentle coaching to a more serious discussion depending on the circumstances.

For example, if John has been regularly reinforced for his accurate reporting on the quality report, it is a much easier conversation to have when a single error occurs and his boss does some coaching on how John might prevent a future lapse. Reason: you have the string of good will as a backdrop for the coaching discussion, and you avoid the common frustration of “the only time I ever hear from them is when I do something wrong.”

All teams that have these seven elements are going to be highly successful; I guarantee it. Take away any one of them, or somehow thwart their application, and the team will suffer sub-optimal performance. Foster these seven elements in all of your teams, and they will glitter like gold and perform like SuperTeams.


Clean Out Your Clutter

October 7, 2012

Most of us need a reminder once in a while to clean out our clutter. This article is about the topic of clutter in various parts of our lives and how we need to keep it from building up. If you have the personal discipline never to have a cluttered desk or workbench, stop reading and give yourself a medal for being so organized. The rest of us will pick apart the concept of clutter and find some coping mechanisms.

First, it would be good to identify exactly what clutter is. Clutter is that set of things (or ideas) that once served a useful purpose in our lives, but now are no longer useful. For example, if you look in your cupboard or pantry, you are likely to find some condiments or food items that expired over a year ago. If you think about it, these items are not safe to eat, and you will never use them. They remain on the shelf taking up valuable space, but they will not be consumed by you or anyone else. To throw them out would be the smart thing to do, but we continue to work around these artifacts and simply refuse to do what is obviously right.

Look in your closet. There are probably clothes in there that you intellectually know you will never wear again. Your body shape is not going to return to the size that would allow these items ever to be wearable by you, and you cannot legitimately give them to someone else. Yet, year after year, they remain in your closet taking up space and leaving the place a cluttered mess.

Keeping clutter is not just a bad habit for people; it is also a problem for organizations. In any organization, there are procedures and processes that have no current purpose, but we continue to do them out of momentum. They sap energy and time from our current operation, but we fail to stop them. An example might be a daily report that nobody pays any attention to anymore. It may be the ancient Mimeograph supplies in the stationery cabinet. They will sit there for decades in their unopened boxes, even though the Mimeograph machine was tossed out in 1975. You probably have ink cartridges or toner for printers that no longer exist in your office. The list goes on and on. Spare parts for machines we no longer own; old Christmas decorations; trade show posters collecting dust; a broken vase; these are all items that can be found in most office store rooms, and there are thousands of other examples if you think about it.

There is also mental clutter that clogs our brains with old ideas that do not apply in our current world, or maybe never did apply very well. For example, many managers still practice a “command and control” philosophy, clinging to the ancient belief that in order to get things done they need to scare people into compliance. Managers may believe that to “motivate” people, all they need to do is add some extrinsic goodies like t-shirts, pizza parties, or hat days. Those ideas went out with Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory over 60 years ago, yet every day I still see managers trying to motivate people with extrinsic rewards.

How can we get a handle on clutter and remove much of it from our lives? To start with, we need to be able to actually see the clutter in a different form than we usually do. I think one way is to do campaigns where we remove every single bottle of lotion or shampoo from a cupboard and then only replace those items we are likely to use in the future. You can do one cupboard or closet a day and have an entire room cleaned up in a week. You can set aside three consecutive days on your calendar to do the garage or attic. Just be sure to have a dumpster handy and a wheel barrow to carry the junk out to it.

With the office procedures, why not have a “clean out” day where we challenge all of the rituals and things that take up our time. There is a formal process for this called “work out.” The idea is to take the useless work out of our processes so we can spend our precious time only on the things that matter, thus de-cluttering our processes. The concepts of lean thinking and “5S” principles are particularly helpful for these clean out activities.

The benefits of cleaning out your clutter is that you make room to put the vital few things for your current existence front and center where they are readily available and not hidden among the piles of useless garbage that has built up over the years. In the event that you need to downsize your environment in the future (and we all eventually do) you will need to throw out the clutter anyway, why not start now and enjoy some more usable resources today.


Losing Control

May 20, 2012

The role of supervisor is one of the most challenging positions in the working world. Reason: Supervisors walk the fine line between losing control of the employees or losing employee motivation by being too strict with rules.

In any organization there are going to be norms or rules that people are supposed to follow. Let me illustrate my point with a specific example. Let’s look at the length of the morning and afternoon breaks. Let’s say the standard break in the organization is 20 minutes. That seems simple enough, everyone in the group is supposed to adhere to the 20 minute break.

What you will see if you actually time the break is that most employees stop work let’s say at exactly 9:30 am. They then go to the bathroom down the hall to wash up before going to the break room. They arrive at the break room at 9:40. They get their coffee or whatever and sit down to chat with friends. Since they arrived at 9:40, they take the full 20 minutes and chat till 10 am. Then they go to the bathroom again to get rid of the coffee they just drank. They loiter in the hall and get back to the workplace at roughly 10:15. So, the standard 20 minute break is now more than double the specified length. The afternoon has the same pattern.

This pattern is typical rather than the exception. The supervisor has a difficult time trying to control this situation without seeming to be an ogre. It can go uncorrected for years, costing the organization a huge penalty in productivity.

Supervisors are continually challenged by people to meet their individual and collective needs, even if it means bending some of the rules. If they let one person come to work a bit late because of a child with special needs, then other people are going to come in late with less valid reasons. First thing you know, nobody is showing up on time. Once people begin to see the supervisor is “reasonable” with exceptions to stated rules, he is on a slippery slope in terms of long term control. Trying to get out of the cycle can be vexing because if the supervisor takes a strong stand on rules, then he becomes despised, and people start finding other ways to cut corners.

Here are seven rules that can prevent the erosion of discipline while, at the same time, showing flexibility and respect for individuals.

1. Be alert to the concept of rules being there for a reason. Know the reasons and communicate them when needed.

2. Let people know what the rules are by well-timed reminders, but avoid getting anal about it.

3. Allow open discussion on how the rules should be applied. This has two benefits 1) it serves to remind people of the specific rules, and 2) it gives people some say and creative input into how the rules should be applied in your area.

4. Be consistent on the application of rules. Do not bend for one person and not another.

5. Allow exceptions only when there is good justification, and explain to people why you decided to bend a rule in this case.

6. Intervene early if there are abuses of the rules. Do not let bad habits continue for months before taking action. Reason: if you wait too long, when you finally do try to enforce the rules, you are subject to ridicule and over reaction.

7. Treat people like adults, and they will act more like adults.

My observation is that the best supervisors are those who really care for people enough to expect them to follow the rules and call them out when they do not. A gentle but firm hand that is applied with kindness will work in most cases. That attitude creates long term respect and trust.


Fewer, Shorter Meetings

September 28, 2011

The ruling paradigm on meetings is that they should be scheduled for one hour. If a manager sends a note to her administrative assistant to schedule a meeting sometime this week, the assistant will instinctively assume the duration is one hour.

We come by this paradigm through convention, and it is an opportunity to challenge the status quo. Suppose the administrative person scheduled the meeting for 40 minutes. What would be the outcome? In most organizations it would mean that everyone invited to the meeting saved at least 20 minutes. As a side benefit, the 40 minutes spent at the meeting would be far more productive because the standard paradigm has been broken.

Start by challenging the need for a meeting at all. This is especially true for “standing meetings” (by this I mean the kind that happen automatically each week, not the kind where there are no chairs in the room – BTW, no chairs is a great way to encourage shorter meetings). Since standing meetings often do not have a specific agenda, they frequently degrade into “group grope” sessions.

There are numerous things that can be done to improve the time utilization at meetings, Here are nine of my favorite techniques;

  1. Suggest that the person leading the meeting be extremely mindful of the duration. After all, what we have at work is our time.
  2. Have a meeting agenda and stick to it unless the group makes a conscious decision to adjust priorities.
  3. Shock people into a realization of what is actually happening:  Set up the meeting to start at 2:17 pm and end at 2:49 pm. That would be a 33 minute meeting (if my math is correct).
  4. Put a premium on how the time is spent in meetings. Make sure the agenda is specific as to how much time will be devoted to each topic and stick to that schedule. Have a PITA assigned to keep things on track (PITA stands for Pain In The Rear).
  5. Acknowledge the need for important side issues, but do not let them derail the meeting.  Handle them efficiently or find another venue to deal with them.
  6. Start and end each meeting on time.  Become known as a stickler for this. You can be courteous and bring stragglers up to speed on what has already been accomplished, but you are really enabling them to continue the practice. It is not polite to others to arrive late for meetings. It is also not polite to attendees for the leader to extend beyond the advertised finish time.
  7. Have a set of expected behaviors for your meetings and post them. Hold each other accountable for abiding by these rules.  Here is a favorite rule of mine. It is expected that when someone feels we are spinning our wheels or not making the best use of time, he or she will give the “time out” signal to the person running the meeting (finger tips of one hand touching the palm of the other hand).  Nobody will be punished in any way for making this sign. It simply calls the question as to whether we are spending our time wisely right now.
  8. Have some time set aside in each meeting to reinforce good behavior and feel good about things that are going well. If we spend 100% of our time dealing with the bad stuff that needs to be fixed, we will never smell the roses.
  9. Obtain and use a meeting cost calculator. You can find free programs on the WEB.  Just plug in the average salary and the number of people, and the calculator lets you know how much money is being spent.  With this information visible on the screen, wordy managers find it beneficial to shut up sooner.

All these rules are common sense. It is too bad they are not common practice, because they help preserve our most critical resource: our time.


Stop Enabling Problem Employees

November 7, 2010

In any organization, there are situations where supervisors accommodate problem employees rather than confront them. Ignoring wrong actions models a laissez faire attitude on problem solving and enforcing rules. It also enables the perpetrator to continue the wrong behavior. In a typical scenario, the problem festers under the surface for months, even years. Ultimately escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point when something simply must be done. By this time, the problems are so horrendous they are many times more difficult to tackle.

A common example is when workers stretch break times from the standard 20 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room. The total duration is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes. The supervisor does not want to appear to be a “by the book” manager, so the problem is ignored every day. When things get too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a major loss in morale.

I once worked in a unit where one person suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him. Finally the situation became intolerable. When they called him in to confront the facts, he had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, “What took you guys so long?” Following months of treatment, he became sober and was able to go on with his life as a positive contributor. Unfortunately, he was old enough by that time to retire; the organization had acted too late to gain much benefit from his recovery. The problem was clear, yet for years nothing was done.

In every organization, there are situations like this (not just health issues – tardiness, too many smoke breaks, or abusing the internet are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. The advice here is to remember the comment made by my friend, “What took you guys so long?” and intervene when the problems are less acute and the damage is minor. In his case, that would have been a blessing; the man died a few months after retiring.

Taking strong action requires courage that many leaders simply do not have. They rationalize the situation with logic like:

• Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
• Perhaps I will be moved sometime soon, and the next person can deal with this.
• Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
• We have already found viable workaround measures, so why rock the boat now?
• We have bigger problems than this. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from our critical work.

The real dilemma is knowing the exact moment to intervene and how to do it in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group. Once you let someone get away with a violation, it becomes harder to enforce a rule the next time. The art of supervision is knowing how to make judgments that people interpret as fair, equitable, and sensitive. The best time to intervene is when the issue first arises. As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and only well-justified exceptions. It is not possible to treat everyone always the same, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize is both appropriate and disciplined.

Be alert for the following symptoms in your area of control. If you observe these, chances are you are enabling problem employees.

• Recognition that you are working around a “problem”
• Accusations that you are “playing favorites”
• Individuals claiming they do not understand documented policies
• Backroom discussions of how to handle a person who is out of control
• Denial or downplaying an issue that is well known in the area
• Fear of retaliation or sabotage if rules are enforced
• Cliques forming to protect certain individuals
• Pranks or horseplay perpetrated on some individuals

These are just a few signals that someone is being enabled and that you need to step up to the responsibility of being the enforcer.

Sometimes supervisors inherit an undisciplined situation from a previous weak leader. It can be a challenge to get people to follow rules they have habitually ignored. One idea is to get the group together and review company policy or simply ask what the rules are in this organization. Often people do not know the policies, or pretend they do not know, because the application of rules has been eclectic. This void gives you a perfect opportunity to restate or recast the rules to start fresh. It can be done as a group exercise to improve buy-in. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better. If you are not a new leader but are in a situation where abuse has crept in, using this technique and taking responsible action can help you regain control and credibility.

The reward for making the tough calls is that people throughout the organization will respect you. Problems will be handled early when they are easier to correct. The downside of procrastinating on enforcement is that you appear weak, and people will continually push the boundaries.